Scots Wha Hae*

Tuning in to the language of whisky country can unlock a lyrical history of distilleries and drams and reveal a world steeped in stories, finds Alistair Heather

Aabdy kens that whan ye’re cuttin aboot Scotland, on a wee birl aboot distilleries or jist gangin tae an airt ye havana been tae afore, the locals will come awa wi sentences ye cannae aye unfankle…**

The Scots language, which that opening is written in, is the tongue of much of the best whisky-country, from the dense clusters of Speyside malts to the scattered stills of Fife and the Lothians. It’s an indigenous language, alongside English and Gaelic, and is spoken by 1.5 million of us. By tuning in our ear to it, we can draw out all sorts of great insights into the history of our drams, and understand the humour and culture of the communities that gave birth to it. 

Scots percolates through the whisky experience, from distillery to dram. Grist is separated for size in the shoogle-box, and vapour condenses through the lye-pipe. The copper dogs – the secreted containers that distillery workers used to purloin whisky from barrels – seem to take their name from the Scots dook, for plunge. And it is very much the language of drinking. A drouth can be briefly sated with a wee nip or altogether extinguished with a heartier dram. The after effects, as Rabbie Burns puts it, can leave you fou and unco happy. Growing up in a Scots-speaking, spirit-distilling area, I’ve always loved how my language enveloped the whisky that was so ubiquitous. 

Recently, I was collaborating on a Scots-language project with a new distillery. The research opened my eyes to how important the tongue is in drawing out all sorts of new stories from the past and present of whisky.

I found that old Scots voices had left some cracking tales in the archives. For example, this recollection of one old man recorded in the 1950s: A Glenlivet man on horseback was taking a wee cask of whisky out the mountains to town, to sell it and thereby pay his rent. From the brush leaped two government agents, looking to arrest him for smuggling. A crisis.

“If he wis tane he’d be jyled,” the recording runs. “An this whisky wad be tane, an naethin tae pey the rent fin he gaed back.  “He’d a cudgel o a stick an...he just lampit the lads owre the heid...knockit them baith doon an aff he could fly wi the horse an the barrel an got rid o [the whisky] afore they wad come tae themsels.’   Scots tales like these tumble out of the hills and memories of whisky communities in torrents.

And the stories are not all ancient.  While working a summer in Speyside, I struck up a friendship with an older neighbour. On Thursday evenings we’d get together with our fiddles, share a dram and play a wee tune.   He was a Scots speaker, and a whisky-story jukebox. I learned that “there aince wis pipes that cairriet the raw speerit owre the road at Duffton fae the stills tae the bottlin.”

A handful of years ago, these pipes were being removed as the industrial process was upgraded. The workers bringing the pipes down found a surprise. All along it at intervals were holes with little rubber bungs in them.  “Turnt oot that fowk wis drivin doon wi teem bottles, staunin on the roofs o their cars, takkin the bungs oot an drainin aff the speerit!”

A modern low-key whisky heist in the heart of Speyside. The story told with a smile. A sip of the dram. Then taking back up the fiddle for another tune.   

This wealth of stories enriches our appreciation of the dram, and it’s tuning in to Scots that brings them out. Newer distilleries have cottoned on to this. The Glen Garioch tour in Aberdeenshire is punctuated with signs reading ‘mair ye yoke the mair ye get’ an ‘ye’ve droont the mullart’. These phrases were given by Scots-speaking distillery staff, and are not meant to be instantly understood. Instead, visitors are invited to ask about them, to reach out, creating a bridge between consumer and creators, extending a welcoming hand into an often-hidden culture. 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society themselves have deployed Scots in some bottling names – Teuchter Dubstep and Cup o Kindness spring to mind – and there’s even a dedicated Scots page on the website. 

The Cabrach Trust are going still further. As they develop a new heritage centre and historic distillery in the rural heart of old illicit whisky country, they are using Scots to tell their story and empower their community. They gather folk by the dozen in their rural byre and bring out local stories in the region’s dialect. These voices and stories will be central to the multimedia centre and the ethic of the distillery. The people telling the story of their spirit in their own words, inviting us to join them.

** Any time you take a trip around Scotland, whether on a quick visit to a few distilleries or just exploring a part of the country you haven’t been to before, you’ll hear words and phrases whose meanings are opaque…


Alistair Heather is a writer and broadcaster from Angus. His local distilleries growing up were the Glencadam and Fettercairn, and they still hold a place in his heart today. He regularly writes, presents and contributes to BBC television and radio programmes on Scottish culture and history.



* from national poet Robert Burns’s work of 1793 Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled (Scots who have bled with Wallace), imagining a speech to his troops by Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.